This week brought news of an impending IPO for America's No. 4 automaker (that'd be Tesla Motors), a Ford (NYSE: F ) friendly shake-up in the J.D. Power quality rankings, signs that the auto industry's heaviest hitters were continuing to see signs of economic recovery, and some emerging concerns for those investing in the electric-car revolution.
Here are some of the stories we're following that you might have missed.
Toyota resumes attempts at world domination
Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , like nearly every other big company on the planet, put most of its expansion plans on hold in the wake of the global financial crisis. Not only were plans for new factories in several countries shelved, but also the company was forced to reduce capacity, cutting shifts and closing a plant (the former NUMMI plant in Northern California, now sort-of sold to Tesla Motors) for the first time ever.
While Toyota didn't get forced into bankruptcy protection like some of its competitors, it has certainly had its share of troubles over the past couple of years. But apparently, management feels that things are looking up: Construction of a new assembly plant in Mississippi, on hold for a year and a half, will proceed now. The plant was originally scheduled to become the first North American plant making Toyota's popular Prius hybrid, but Toyota now says that the plant will produce its compact Corolla model instead. Production is expected to begin in the second half of 2011.
Work has also resumed recently on new plants in Brazil and China, further evidence of Toyota's faith in the ongoing global recovery.
GM's recovery hits high gear
Toyota's renewed focus on expansion is a good sign, economically speaking, but it isn't the only one: General Motors announced this week that nine of its 11 assembly plants will skip their traditional summer shutdowns and instead continue production through July.
Summer plant shutdowns -- a traditional time for worker vacations, and for manufacturers to retool for the new model year -- are a standard U.S. auto industry practice, a longtime part of the automakers' contracts with the United Auto Workers. Not this year, though -- GM has said that it will bring in temporary workers to provide vacation coverage, keeping plants running to meet high demand for several of its vehicles.
GM's sales have been especially strong lately, but it isn't the only automaker adjusting production to meet rising demand: Although cross-town competitor Ford isn't expected to abandon summer shutdowns, the Dearborn, Mich., automaker has announced plans to increase production by 42% in the second quarter and 16% in the third quarter.
Chrysler expects to conduct its summer plant shutdowns as usual.
At least we won't run short of batteries
Electric cars are certainly emerging as the Next Big Thing: Toyota and Ford's hybrids are selling well, Tesla's moving toward the mass market, and Nissan's upcoming all-electric Leaf is receiving great press and piles of pre-orders.
About 14,000 people have already put down $99 deposits to hold their place in line for the Leaf, due by the end of this year. Nissan eventually expects to produce 150,000 of the vehicles annually at its Tennessee plant. And Ford recently said that electric vehicles could represent as much as 25% of its total sales by 2020.
That's a lot of electric cars. But even with optimistic projections, we may be headed for a glut of electric car batteries. Billions are being invested in the emerging business of lithium-ion vehicle batteries, with several huge projects underway in the U.S. and abroad. The names involved range from heavy-hitter auto suppliers like Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) to battery heavyweights like LG Chem and China's BYD, to smaller companies like A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) .
But some of those investments might be premature: By some estimates, battery production could outpace demand by more than a million units a year within five years. Consolidation and shake-outs may be inevitable, something that investors in companies like A123 should consider carefully.
Those looking to ride the EV boom might be better off investing in the longtime auto suppliers that have made significant EV-related investments, such as Johnson Controls and Lear Corp. (NYSE: LEA ) , which has invested heavily in electric-car component manufacturing. Or you could consider Tesla's upcoming IPO -- but if you do, tread carefully.
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